It’s arguably one of the toughest jobs in California: safely guiding more than 9,000 oil tankers, container ships, and cruise ships each year through treacherous currents and fog, past shoals, and under narrow bridges through busy northern California waterways.

The expert mariners of the San Francisco Bar Pilots have safely ushered vessels up this way since 1850; we board vessels by climbing hand over hand on rope ladders at sea 11 miles west of the Golden Gate, and then bring them home safely to nine ports within San Francisco Bay and the Port of Monterey.

It’s a rough business, particularly with a shipping industry that is consistently looking to cut costs. A recent blockbuster series in The New York Times noted “On average, a large ship sinks every four days and between 2,000 and 6,000 seamen die annually, typically because of avoidable accidents linked to lax safety practices.”

In addition to these hazards, ships are growing in size, with some nearly 1,200 feet long. Now more than ever, mariners with navigational experience, ship-handling skills, and local knowledge are needed to perform the critical public service of delivering passengers, agricultural products, hazardous materials, and consumer goods throughout the Bay to points stretching from Redwood City to Sacramento.

Although times were certainly different, the importance of having safe passage to northern Californian’s ports was not lost on the founders of the State of California. They saw the benefit of a regulated pilotage service at the first meeting of the California Legislature way back in December 1849 at Pueblo de San Jose. At the time, they set up the Bar Pilots service (much like communities set up their police and fire departments) to ensure safety of ships crowding the narrow and dangerous San Francisco Bay.

The Pilots are still regulated by the Legislature – even though no state funds are paid to them or for their retirement security. Multi-national shipping companies pay the entire costs of this expert pilotage; not a dime is paid by taxpayers — not for the cost of pilot operations nor for the pension plans of these expert mariners.

When expenses increase, the Pilots turn to the state’s Board of Pilot Commissioners to assess the fees they are paid. This year — for the first time in a decade — the Board of Pilot Commissioners are proposing a reasonable rate increase: just 10% percent spread over four years.

Why the increase? The Board, which consists of maritime experts, cited a 33 percent increase in expenses since the last rate increase 10 years ago. It recommended reauthorization of a navigation technology surcharge as well.

These rate recommendations – which passed unanimously — were made after two days of public testimony and deliberation.

During the hearings, rate increase supporters argued that compensation needs to be competitive with other pilotage grounds around the nation (such as New York, Savannah, and Houston). Supporters also point out that piloting is a high risk business; well trained pilots will be difficult to attract to the high cost Bay Area if not competitively compensated.

As for the issue of retirement security, reforms already have been made. After years of negotiations, the Pacific Merchant Shippers Association and the San Francisco Bar Pilots agreed to a pension plan in 1992. That pension legislation, AB 2406, was supported by both the SFBP and PMSA.

There was no opposition to AB 2406. In fact, in testimony before the Pilot Commission the then-president of PMSA noted: “I can tell the commission that we believe from the industry’s perspective it is a very fair plan….. from PMSA’s perspective if the commission does adopt this plan before you today, this pension issue is resolved.”

With as many as 9,000 vessel moves a year, the San Francisco Bar Pilots must attract and retain the very best mariners who can operate day or night, in practically any weather conditions, and provide expert guidance to foreign shipping captains and crews, many of whom are calling on the Bay Area for the first time. The requested increase is long overdue. The Legislature should implement it, just as the Board of Pilot Commissioners has recommended.